Showing posts with label Ben Hecht. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ben Hecht. Show all posts

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Whirlpool (1949)

Editor's note: This week's Film Noir selection is from one of the most highly-regarded film noir historians, Foster Hirsch. His new book Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be Kingwas just published by Knopf. The book is an epic biography of the legendary Viennese-born filmmaker. Preminger made many different styles of film but for me he'll always be known as a noir director. His film noir Whirlpool was successful but far from his best. The strange little drama is entertaining, improbable and even a bit silly. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy it. Mr Hirsch sent me this introduction and allowed us to use an excerpt from the book on the blog.

by Foster Hirsch

Otto Preminger’s standing at Fox during the last years of his contract, from the late 1940s to 1953, was a disappointment to him as well as to his boss, Darryl Zanuck. Following the success of Laura in 1944, Preminger worked in a number of genres - he did not want to be typecast as a director of thrillers or murder mysteries -- often with quite respectable results. But no single film had landed with the impact of his celebrated salon noir. And given his temperament - Otto was born to give rather than follow orders - by the late 1940s he was eager to branch off on his own as a complete independent producer-director. Succumbing somewhat reluctantly to the “genius” of the system, which argued the wisdom of always returning to the scene of your first success, Preminger, in 1949 and 1950, decided to make three psychological thrillers in a row. He knew the genre (which nobody at the time referred to as film noir) was a good fit for him and each of the scripts, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Whirlpool, and The Thirteenth Letter, contained the psychological perversities and ambivalence that he was always drawn to. Of the three thrillers, Whirlpool, which takes place in the homes of well-to-do characters in Beverly Hills, was the most congenial - Where the Sidewalk Ends has a gritty, hard-boiled, mean streets milieu and The Thirteenth Letter takes place in a bleak small town in Canada. But Preminger directs all three films with the kind of glacial control that had distinguished his direction of Laura. At the time of their release the films were not regarded as in any way important, in fact were markers of the director’s fallen estate at the studio. Since then, the films have had substantial critical rehabilitation and are now generally regarded as essential contributions to the era of classic noir.

As José Ferrer, Whirlpool's costar, recalled, “Otto and Zanuck hoped that the film, which is like a sequel to Laura– it had the same star, the same mood and atmosphere – would have the same success.” Like Laura, Whirlpool is a sleek thriller about the well-to-do. Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney), the fashionable, neurotic wife of a prominent psychoanalyst, is kleptomaniac. When she is arrested at an upscale department store for stealing a broach, she is save by Korvo (José Ferrer), an astrologer and hypnotist who specializes in separating gullible rich women from their money. Korvo convinces Ann that he can cure her; his real goal, however, is to implicate her in the murder of his ex-mistress, a patient of Ann's husband. At the end, Korvo is gunned down in front of the large portrait of the woman he has killed.

Working with experienced screenwriters like Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt, Preminger could not get the convoluted plot to gel. But his shrewd casting of the two leads helped to offset the damage. As the unstable heroine Gene Tierney, who had already suffered periods of mental illness and in later years was to have a harrowing history of breakdowns followed by fragile recoveries, is startling effective. Korvo's comment to Ann, that she has become imprisoned in her role as a pampered, dressed-to-perfection housewife, is also a comment on Tierney's own “perfection” as a well-behaved Hollywood mannequin. As Korvo (kuervo in Yiddish is a male prostitute, an apt description of the character's gigolo manner), José Ferrer offers the enticing spectacle of a phony actor playing a phony actor. The hamminess that was to curdle almost all Ferrer's work is exactly the point here: Korvo is an out-and-out charlatan. For the other major role, that of the society therapist with a trophy wife, Preminger made a rare casting flub: in a tuxedo Richard Conte looks and sounds like a thug. “Conte was a big mistake,” Ferrer said. “We all felt while we were shooting the film. He suggested a New York street type rather than a well-educated psychiatrist.”

The director and his cinematographer Arthur Miller gild Whirlpool with many visual pleasures. Mirror shots of the troubled heroine in her well-appointed home – as in Laura the objects of the rich are made to glisten – underline the character's duality. In a brilliant sequence of noir iconography, under hypnosis and performing the script Korvo has provided, Ann leaves her house and drives to the house of the murdered woman. The camera is placed at odd, transfiguring angles; diagonal shadows cover the walls of Ann's house and of the hilltop house of the dead woman whose portrait looms over her living room like a malevolent deity. The shot in which Gene Tierney stands before the portrait is an obvious homage to Laura and a rare moment of self-quotation in Preminger's oeuvre. David Raksin's theme song (“nice, but not great,” as the composer recalled) evokes the heroine's descent into a vortex.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Kiss of Death (1947)

Posted by Mappin & Webb Ltd.

Dir. Henry Hathaway

As our film begins a narrator informs us over the opening shots of a bustling Manhattan that, “Christmas eve in New York a happy time for some people; the lucky ones. Last minute shopping, presents for the kids, hurry home to light the tree and fill the stockings… for the lucky ones. Others aren’t so lucky.” Here we are introduced to Nick Bianco (Victor Mature) a former jail-bird, trying to fly the straight and narrow. After a year of his prison record impeding his efforts to get a legit job, we see Nick and a few cohorts enter a jeweler’s office and rob them because, “this is how Nick goes Christmas shopping for his kids.” Nick gets caught at the end of this tense scene where he is seconds away from eluding the police who have been tipped off to the burglary. As he is about to escape their grasp, into the streets of New York, when a cop shoots him in the leg, dropping him to the ground and ensuring his Christmas will be spent at the graybar hotel. The narrator informs us that this event mirrors the fate of Nick’s father who died twenty years earlier with a policeman’s bullet in his back. He was escaping from a robbery he just committed when young Nick witnessed his father’s death and sadly enough it was one of his earliest memories. When the violins die down Nick is looking at plenty jail time but he has a way out.

Assistant D.A. Louis D’Angelo (Brian Donlevy) is a family man who tells Nick that if he sings about the failed heist, he can get out of serving time in the big cage. But Bianco is no canary and refuses to talk even when D’Angelo tries to push his guilt buttons about his two young daughters growing up without their dad. The Assistant D.A. believes that Nick is a good guy at heart and tries to give him a way to avoid incarceration. We see Nick’s wheels turn at the prospect and persuasion put forth by D’Angelo, but Nick is old school and decides to do his time with his mouth shut.

Three years into doing his bit in the joint, Nick finds out that his wife has killed herself by sticking her head in a gas oven because of financial worries and her drinking too much. Upon hearing the news Nick wants to get out and take care of his kids who have landed in an orphanage. In prison he gets a visit from Nettie (Coleen Gray) a young woman who used to take care of his daughters and quit and moved away before Nick’s wife treated her melon like a bundt cake. Nettie and Nick have a connection and he asks her to keep tabs on his daughters.

Beside himself with guilt and concern for his daughters, Nick decides to cut a deal with D’Angelo and give up his crew. Unfortunately this is where Nick must cross paths again with Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark). Tommy and Nick had met before when Nick was being sentenced and they wound up in the same cell for little while. Tommy expressed to Nick his surprise at being behind bars noting, “Imagine me in here. Big man like me gettin’ picked up just for shoving a guy’s ears off his head. Traffic ticket stuff.” With that statement we understand Tommy’s idea of a moving violation differs drastically from yours and mine. Tommy Udo proves it later when he has to silence a potential informer and ends up lashing the stoolie’s mother to her wheelchair with an electrical cord and proceeds to push her tumbling down a flight of stairs. Cementing his dark disposition Udo gives his legendary creepy cackle at the sight of his maternal manhandling.

Under the guidance of D’Angelo, Nick purposely bumps into and pretends to be pals with Udo to get some dirt on him for the Assistant D.A. The plan works and the D.A.’s office is taking Tommy to trial for murder, Nick testifies against him and everything seems rosy. Nick and Nettie have gotten married, he has a regular job and a new identity. His daughters are finally out of the orphanage, living with the newlyweds and happily improving their roller-skating skills on a daily basis. The picture can’t get any more perfect until the frame they try to hang on Tommy Udo doesn’t take and his slick shyster manages to get Tommy acquitted of the charges he faced. Now Nick has the psychopath Tommy Udo gunning for him and his family. While he wants to help Nick, the assistant D.A. can only wait for Tommy to violate his parole in order to get him off the streets. That may be too little too late for Nick, Nettie and the girls with a lunatic like Udo looking for payback. Nick sends Nettie and the girls packing to the country and decides to take care of Tommy Udo himself. At this point the cat and mouse game between Nick and Tommy plays out with both parolees having to tread carefully under the watchful eye of D’Angelo.

This movie is entertaining overall but not much else in terms of the film as a whole. I don’t feel like director Henry Hathaway covered any unique ground or brought anything original to the table with this picture. He had already incorporated filming in actual locations and quasi-documentary style with his previous work The House on 92nd Street and would do the same (with more effectiveness) a year after Kiss of Death with Call Northside 777.” The movie looks fine and there is some nice editing in several key scenes such as the opening heist, Udo’s wheelchair pushing scene and the ending that nicely bolster the tension. The script is solid but lacks some flair or panache leaving it seeming a little flat in places. While there are some great lines, I honestly expected more from writers Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer who between them have written such gems as “Notorious” “Spellbound” “His Girl Friday” “Mutiny on the Bounty” “The Thing from Another World” and “Oceans Eleven” just to name a few (Even more impressive is Hecht’s uncredited contributions to many scripts over several decades. Check out his imdb page and be in awe). All that being said, the performances of Mature and Widmark are the elements that make this movie stand out from the pack.

Victor Mature is truly effective in his role as Nick Bianco as he can balance a believable hood with a genuine guy who is motivated by his kids to straighten up from his crooked ways. It could have been played very sappy (especially in the scenes with the saccharine sweet little girls) but Mature nicely acts out the role and not the dramatic story. The result is a performance that elicits just the right mix of sympathy and compassion for his character. His wistful eyes also seal the deal when necessary too. Perfect casting and acting combined for the crucial role of our protagonist Nick.

If I had to choose one reason to recommend watching this film it’s definitely the screen debut of Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo. His performance is outstanding, as he doesn’t so much give you the creeps as he force-feeds them to you. Udo is a perfect storm of menace, sadist and sociopath. Widmark commands every scene he’s in with such a forceful presence and performance that as the film continues, you find yourself just waiting for him to appear. He also gets some classic lines such as telling a cop fishing for info that he wouldn’t give him “the skin off a grape.” Without Victor Mature’s understated performance Widmark’s Udo may have lost some of his effectiveness by seeming too over the top or out of place contrasted by a less convincing Nick Bianco. The two portrayals, however, balance each other perfectly and create a solid foundation of tension and excitement for this otherwise moderate noir.